The former Green Party leader and Sheffield Central candidate talks life after leadership, the NHS and progressive alliances
Perhaps six people are sitting in Nourish, a low-key-yet-trendy cafe, humbly furnished with make-believe grass and rustic wood. The ‘healthy fast food’ venue, near Sheffield’s Peace Gardens, is possibly the most cliched hang out an environmentalist could find.
Right on cue, Natalie Bennett strides in and exchanges warm pleasantries with the hip bloke on the till. No one bats an eyelid at the Green Party’s former leader, who carefully sets down various suitcases. This, she confides, is like her “second office” – and she already seems a regular.
Having deciphered the menu, you find a plethora of pretentiously health-conscious choices available. The 50-year-old is having none of it, and plumps for a no-nonsense coffee quicker than you can say acai berries.
“I believe in a work-life balance; I don’t have one”, she quips, getting down to business. “Retirement isn’t the right word. What I’m doing is basically continuing full time politics.”
Its been over three months since Bennett stepped down as leader, but life remains busy. She was envisaging interacting with the public in greater depth, following her own political interests and seeing the North of England. There’s been little time for that, though, after her selection as the Green candidate for Sheffield Central in anticipation of a snap election.
She enthuses about the city and its “great, radical political tradition”. Once settled, she wants to bake more regularly and walk in the ancient woodland near her home with a new dog, partly to “enforce” that much sought after work-life balance. Her praise seems genuine, but some might wonder – given that Sheffield had the third highest Green vote in the country at the last election – whether moving up North is motivated more by lifestyle or career.
“We have a great chance here”, she grins, oozing a relaxed, quirky charm to match a novel pair of cartoon dog earrings.
As well as moving from London, Bennett has also been writing a memoir. It will cover her time as leader, reflections on how she got there and what might come next. As has become something of a catch phrase for her, the book stresses that “politics should be something you do, not have done to you”.
Interestingly, she describes herself as a journalist (she has an illustrious history in the industry), when talking about finishing the book quickly.
General election in March
“I’m hoping that it will be coming out some time next year but events may, well… we’ll have to talk to the agent about that one.”
Those “events” are a general election, which – she suggests – could be on the horizon.
“(No one) thinks we are in any way ready to invoke article 50 in March. You’ve got a very large, dangerous clock ticking once you invoke it, plus you’ve got French and German elections this year. If you called an election in March, that gives you an immediate reason to call off invoking article 50 for at least four or five months.
“Given the general state of instability, I think the chances of us going to 2020 are very, very slim.”
The veil of a perennially cheerful figure has been replaced to show another side to Bennett – one that is gritty, determined, and outwardly seething at the state of British politics. But she remains fiercely hopeful and fires off more jokes than her TV persona and that infamous “car crash” interview last year might suggest.
Her work ethic, too, has never been in doubt; her legacy less so.
She could fade into a ‘remember her’ figure: a piece of pub trivia about the first female party leader in British political history to take over from another woman.
Yet her record on expanding the Green Party is undoubtedly impressive. She describes how half a dozen staff were in the main office when she took over, coupled with a membership of around 12,000.
Three and a half “amazing” years and one ‘Green surge’ later, membership had more than quadrupled and she was debating the long forgotten trio of David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and co live on national television.
Yet there are some who believe that with Miliband’s Labour not enticing voters, the Greens, now led by Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, could have done better.
“No regrets”, she beams, and moves on to the importance of the future, which she believes Labour is failing to grasp.
Centrism is dead
“I think a lot of Labour is looking backwards; we (the Green Party) are looking forward to a transformation. We need to give people genuine security and for many I don’t think that is going to come from traditional employment. That’s why a universal basic income has to be one of the foundational policies.
“Going forward means a whole range of things, like a transformation of the economy with all the potential for independent small businesses, the green economy, renewable energy, energy conservation.
“Centrist politics is dead because it implies leaving things much as they are. People just don’t believe that the way we are doing things now can – or will – continue. You have to be presenting a clear vision. Politics is going to end up is – to put it in British terms – between UKIP and Green.”
She uses Donald Trump, Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn and the 2015 election to exemplify how people are “hungry for change” and the unexpected can happen.
One of her more radical ideas is a maximum wage. She reasons that a genuine (“not George Osborne’s fake”) Living Wage is around £15,000 outside of London. Ten times that is Theresa May’s salary and whilst Bennett accepts that running a big company is challenging, she’s “not sure its much worse than being prime minister” – therefore making the restriction a good “starting point” for a fairer society.
At the thought of a Liberal Democrat who failed to see why that fairer society couldn’t include private sector involvement in the NHS, she endearingly face palms herself, believing it to be the big issue in Britain today.
“People are really starting to wake up to the whole issue of privatising the NHS. Its very hard not to think that the Tories aren’t deliberately mismanaging it: Jeremy Hunt is on record as saying that he wants an American style privatised health care system; the service transformation programme is actually a cover for privatisation.
“By 2020 we will be spending around 6.6% of GDP on the NHS. France and Germany both spend about 11%. That’s not much better than half and its no wonder the NHS is struggling. There is nothing like enough money and we have a tiny number of hospital beds compared to our population.
“We are squeezing our health service to breaking point – what is actually, demonstrably, the most efficient, effective and fair health care system in the world. The NHS is a huge issue and I’m afraid one of the sad things is that Labour is responsible for starting many of the processes that the Tories have carried forward.”
In a climate of widespread leftist enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn, Bennett – perhaps unsurprisingly – remains stubbornly bitter about Labour’s record.
“I’d say we still have some fundamental differences”, she sighs – presumably tired of being asked why anyone would vote Green now Corbyn is Labour leader.
“If you’re going to pin that down to two things it’s the understanding that we cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. And Corbyn, Clive Lewis, his people, they still talk about ‘green growth’ and behind this is actually a neoliberal idea: the idea that you make the pie bigger and everyone’s share gets a little bit bigger. We know we’ve hit the limits of the pie and so we have to make sure everyone gets enough.
“I’m afraid Labour, collectively, is nowhere near grasping that basic fact, which ultimately isn’t politics, its physics. The other thing is the nature of politics. Politics being something that you do; from the grass roots up; localism; that’s absolutely core to our DNA, whereas Labour has a very top-down, direct from the centre approach. Even the fact that all of this is invested in one man, that’s not the way we do politics.”
Britain not a democracy
Yet Bennett concedes that the parties must work together in a progressive alliance, if they are to end austerity and “this disastrous, undemocratic Tory way of governing.” She slates the fact that only 24% of eligible voters elected the government and argues it is paramount that the Greens shelve their differences with Labour to get a fairer voting system.
“We don’t actually have a democracy now. Winning a democracy would be a huge advance for Britain.”
Nonetheless, the Australian-born politician does not believe a progressive alliance will be a “great monolithic thing” citing fracking and private sector involvement in the NHS as “absolute red lines.”
Instead, she favours flexible arrangements based on location and election, stressing that progressive alliance(s) should be pluralised.
There is also the added dimension of wanting to pull Labour left.
“For Jeremy Corbyn, a strong Green Party is a good thing. We are a counterweight to the Blairites, the centrists in Labour. If you look at somewhere like Sheffield Central, I think unarguably there is no risk of the Tories or the Liberal Democrats getting in, so you have a straight choice between me and the Labour candidate. There is no doubt which would give you a more left wing parliament out of that choice.
“I will always do everything possible to stop a Tory government happening, but I will also ensure that we pull whatever government we have towards social and environmental justice more strongly than anyone in Labour is likely to do.”
Asked whether she thought Labour might step aside for her at the next general election, she smiles: “You never know, I am always open to discussions.”
She knows Labour are highly unlikely to give her a free run but, pressed again, remains coy: “We shall have to see, it is in the hands of the voters. In a way what we are doing in Sheffield Central is beating first past the post. People can have a straight choice.”
Of course, Bennett is conscious that whilst a strong Green Party might be good for Corbyn, he is not necessarily good for them. If, in this time of political upheaval, Corbyn’s leadership does come to an end, Green Party hopes nationwide will soar – and Bennett could find herself elected to Parliament for the first time.